by Jackie Kirk-Martinez, Ed.D.
by Jackie Kirk-Martinez, Ed.D.

As the new school year progresses, parents and caregivers have fallen into routines for the pick-up and drop-off of their children, before and after school. Parking lots are full, and cars are parked in bus zones; therefore, we need to be extra diligent ensuring the safety of children with special needs.

When a child has special needs, there are many reasons to be extra cautious as your child might:

  • Lack compliance or attending skills
  • Lack a fear factor, or awareness of danger
  • Exhibit increased distractibility and impulsivity
  • Have difficulty or inability to filter out visual and auditory stimuli
  • Lack the daily living skills or readiness skills of community awareness
  • Possess cognitive and learning challenges

Below are several steps parents or caregivers can take to teach safety in parking lots and crossing the street. This list is not exhaustive and not all suggestions will apply to your child, but they are a good starting point for most and can serve as a guide. 

What does “Look both ways before crossing the street”, “Stop, Look and Listen”, “Watch out for cars in the parking lot” really mean… We teach our children street safety through common phrases, but what do these words really mean to our children with special needs? 

For street crossing, it means:

  • Stop at the curb or edge of the street ALWAYS;
  • Look to the left and then look to the right (but why);
  • After you look to the left and right, and you do not see a form of vehicle, you might be safe to cross the street;
  • If you do see a vehicle, there are many factors that go into making a decision whether or not to cross the street immediately or wait for the vehicle to pass. These decisions are challenging to make and include: the speed and of the vehicle, how fast is it going, the distance of the vehicle, if it is guided by traffic signals, and the list continues.

For parking lot safety, it means:

  • Cars back up and they can’t see you; so watch for “taillights”;
  • There are a lot of cars in the parking lot, so walk slowly and look for cars moving; they move at different speeds, in different directions, and the list continues.

Some children have very good observational learning skills and can learn nuances naturally, however this should not be assumed.

So what can you do?  Start by dedicating time to teach safety and at a time when you do not need to get to a location.


  1. Teach simple instructions and ensure compliance

Your child may need to begin the learning process, by teaching them simple instructions such as, “Wait”, “Look”, “Stop”, etc.  If this is the situation, and you need assistance with teaching this, please refer to compliance or verbal instruction strategies by contacting your school’s special education staff, intervention agencies, or you may contact us.

  1. Use 21st Century technology

Go to places on the internet such as You Tube,, use applications from the iPad or iPhone, watch the videos, and interact using the applications with your child.  This prepares your child for the real teaching event.

  1. Use peers or siblings to video model

Video modeling is watching a video of a person, performing the desired interaction or skill correctly, and the child then imitates that skill. You may also video your child having success and have him or her watch the video to reinforce the desired skill.

  1. Develop a Social Story

What will the experience be like crossing the street or walking through a parking lot?  Create a story that includes pictures of streets and parking lots. The more real pictures the better…. and pair the picture with words, or a brief narrative.  For the older child, he or she might write the social story. If you need help in developing a social story, Google on the internet, “social story”, contact your school’s special education staff, or contact us to help you.

  1.  Make other visual cues to help them remember

You may need to provide them with picture cards, or word cards used like flashcards to assist your child.  Have your child sequence the cards prior to the teaching interaction, then use them at the time of the event and slowly fade the visual prompts, until your child is independent. You may only need a checklist for the advanced learner or when the cards have been faded but reminders are necessary.

  1. Set up the situation with family members or friends

Have your friends and family drive the vehicle down the road in order to practice.  Set up a parking lot activity with your neighbors, or school buddies. This will allow for real life practice, yet be safe from spontaneous or unexpected events.

  1. Don’t forget to generalize the safety skill

You will want to vary your instruction, use different locations, streets, and parking lots and have other adults and family members work with your child to ensure your child will use the learned skill anywhere and everywhere.

  1. Evaluate which strategy or strategies will match your child’s ability best

Be observant of your child’s ability.  Do you need to limit your length of sentences, adjust your vocabulary or speed of your directions? Can you use one strategy or do you need to use a variety of strategies?  Your child is your best guide. Whichever strategy you use, and because this is such a critical safety skill, you will want your child to gain 100% success.  ■


Jackie Kirk-Martinez, Ed.D., is an Educational Consultant, and owner of ABLE Choice, Inc.She has been certified as a general education teacher, special education teacher and an administrator. Dr. Kirk-Martinez’ doctorate degree is in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Special Education. Visit for additional information.
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